Okwui Okpokwasili’s “Poor People’s TV Room”
Poor People’s TV Room, Okwui Okpokwasili’s latest work-in-progress and continuation of her fruitful collaboration with Peter Born, is the most exquisite kind of dream. Writing about it I find myself grasping for images, memories, and impressions, of which there are many, but they are scattered throughout the fog of the piece as a whole. And I don’t mean fog in that the work was unclear. The work was powerfully clear and the fog was certainly intentional. The entire piece is viewed through a sheet of plastic strung across the length of the space.
Okwui Okpokwasili is an extraordinary and heroic performer. My history with her is regrettably short, but what I have seen from her onstage and off is a kind of grounded calm, a certitude, a self-assuredness that comes from living and breathing the work you do. Her presence would be imposing if she weren’t so kind. She stands tall and strong, unless she is embodying fear or sorrow or youth, though even these she inhabits with a kind of emotional presence and resonance. She is beautiful and proud and powerful and incisively smart. In Poor People’s TV Room I couldn’t see her for most of the 40 minute excerpt.
I am thinking a lot about what was seen and not seen. Throughout the piece most of the nine performers were blurred and could only be made out by staring intently at the plastic sheet separating audience from performers. At times they would advance toward the front of the stage coming into clearer focus, then retreat back into the nebulous dark. This is what I mean when I say the piece was dreamlike, this shifting in and out of focus of certain vivid, almost iconic images. Perhaps memory is a better and more accurate analogy; in the description of the piece is written, “… Poor People’s TV Room considers the collective amnesia around women’s resistance movements in Nigeria, from the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 to the recent Boko Haram kidnappings and the ‘save our girls’ campaigns.” Yes, perhaps memory is a better framework for this piece.
This gets me thinking about the challenges of collective memory in an age of instantaneous communication, of the many causes that are found and lost in the annals of Facebook and Twitter. One could add many movements to the list of things forgotten quickly by a world inundated with information and issues vying for attention. I don’t believe that people are bad. I believe that people are people. I believe that people want to care and that people do care, but I think that caring is hard; sustained caring is hard. This is not an excuse. But it is extraordinarily hard to go on continuing to care about things you cannot see. Which is why we need artists to bring our attention back, to point us in a direction with a cocked head and a question mark.
It would be negligent to not mention the music in Poor People’s TV Room — it was central and constant and pivotal and extraordinary. It started with just a few voices, though Okwui’s was always present, and grew to the full chorus of nine women. The song consisted of a series of phrases sung over and over again and couched in a hypnotic, repetitive melodic structure. The phrases were sometimes cryptic and sometimes literal consisting of lines like, “Look at this body boy,” “Rippin’ up all my clothes,” “Look at my open palm,” and “Don’t swear on your Bible, I can’t read your Bible.” (Forgive me if I misheard.)
It was interesting to me that the women’s voices were always clear and strong and resonant though their bodies were often obscured. Perhaps there is symbolism there, perhaps even a glimmer of hope (though it is also possible that I am revealing my optimism). It may also be interesting to note that the performers spanned generations.
This was a work-in-progress, though had it been presented as a finished piece I would have left full. There is much to be said about the work’s stated subject matter, and much to be said about the entrenched racism and selective attention of the Western world’s moral compass (this past week’s outpouring of support to Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the terrorist shootings, while a massacre in Nigeria went largely unnoticed and un-commented on is one entry on a very long list), and many have said it much more eloquently and intelligently than I possibly could. My humble yet resolute contribution is this: so long as there are artists like Okwui Okpokwasili in the world gently focusing our attention on the host of questions, problems, and injustices that we may otherwise lose track of or leave behind, and so long as there are those who will sit in a room staring intently at a plastic sheet and striving to see, and so long as there are performers willing to dance and sing and sweat and breathe in order to help people to think and feel and hope and wonder, the world, in spite of its countless injustices and challenges and horrors, just might be okay in the end.
Poor People’s TV Room will have another in-progress showing at BRIC Arts Media House on April 3rd & 4th, 7:30pm